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LONGITUDES

From the Blank Canvas to the Bigger Picture

Elliott Hubbard facing a blank canvas

The author Richard Wright said, “An artist deals with aspects of reality different from those which a scientist sees.” Right now, the reality that scientists — and most people — see is a pandemic. And right now, artists can’t help but see that same reality.

Art shows — the main way many artists show their work — halted. Art galleries closed. It’s not just about seeing the art, which is important, but about connecting with the artist.

I love relationships. I love people. Now, I can't touch anybody's hand. I can't hug them. I can’t stand in front of my booth and encourage the collector or festival goer to give me and my artwork a chance.

Social distancing is one aspect of reality that scientists and artists see eye-to-eye on.

Artist and entrepreneur Elliott Hubbard breaks down his approach to the blank canvas, revealing how he reaches a wider audience in the age of coronavirus.

Things have changed

Personally, reality hit near the end of March when 11 members of my and my wife’s family contracted COVID-19. Five of them passed away.

Professionally, the reality hit when a couple of weeks earlier, I was on my way to Chicago to do an art show I've been doing for the last 15 years. Five hours into the 11-hour trip, I got the call — show cancelled.

I had been selling my artwork in fine art festivals across the country for almost 20 years. This was my business, my livelihood. So, I did a lot of thinking on the drive home.

I’m a mixed media artist. My work is three-dimensional. How were people going to really appreciate it if they couldn’t experience it in person?

“I realized everything about my business had changed. I’d have to meet people differently. I’d have to show my art differently. I’d even have to create my art differently.”

I was facing a blank canvas. Normally, that’s the most exciting thing in the world for me. But this level of uncertainty was different. With my art, I have an idea — or six — waiting to jump out and onto that blank canvas. With my business, I didn’t have a clue. That was unfamiliar ground.

As a Black artist, the reality hit home harder. The art market is huge, but like so many other areas in society, it has some issues with race. At some art shows, I might be one of only three Black artists out of 200. A lot of people can’t see the beauty in your work because they can’t see past the color of your skin.

But in person, I could touch people — one person at a time, on their level. It doesn’t take long to connect on the things we all want in life: love, happiness, quality relationships and good health. It’s hard to hate up close.

On that drive home, I realized everything about my business had changed. I’d have to meet people differently. I’d have to show my art differently. I’d even have to create my art differently.

And I’d have to find different ways to get my art into people’s hearts and homes. I’d have to revamp and reinvent everything — not just my business but myself.

Seeing reality differently

I won’t lie — it’s been a challenge.

Before the pandemic, I created the artwork, took it to a framer, then went to live shows to meet people and sell my work. I hand delivered my creations, or clients picked them up at the show.

Now, going to a framer isn’t an option. My website isn’t just a way to sell two-dimensional prints, it’s the only way to sell all the pieces I make in all the dimensions I make them. Social media isn’t something to do for fun; it’s the best way to connect and stay connected with my customers.

I need people to see my work to sell it. If you don't have the audience, you don't have sales. I had a business website, but since I did most of my selling in person, I didn’t put as much time into it. It needed some work, and it was a bit outdated and so — surprise — the traffic wasn't great.

“I’m learning how to sell a three-dimensional product in a two-dimensional space. I’m learning how to speak in optimized language for search engines. I’m learning how to touch people digitally.”

I started fixing the website the minute I got home from the canceled Chicago trip. Fortunately, I had a way to jumpstart the transition — a secondary Etsy site. I set it up 10 years ago, but I never paid much attention to it. Since I already knew a little about it, I got up to speed quickly. The fact that Etsy has great tools for things like editing and choosing keywords made it easier.

What I hadn’t thought about was the access Etsy could provide. Etsy is the place for artists and craftsmen. Millions of shoppers looking for work like mine were already going there — a virtual art show, only a whole lot bigger!

My challenge has been figuring out how to get them to my “booth,” how to share my passion for the work so they’ll get passionate about it, too.

I'm learning how to get the images right and convey my passions. I’m learning how to sell a three-dimensional product in a two-dimensional space. I’m learning how to “speak” in optimized language for search engines. I’m learning how to touch people digitally.

The only thing missing was a way to get my artwork to my new virtual clients. UPS solved that problem for me.

Now, people are starting to get a feel for my work. When that UPS package arrives and they unbox my work, we connect. I know because they tell me with great reviews on my website.

I’m an e-commerce whiz now. I’ve become an excellent framer. Coming off the road has given me a whole lot more time — time to be in the studio creating, time to be with my family. And now my kids are painting because I'm at home to guide them.

They're actually working on their own collection; they've started their own e-commerce site. As a Black business owner, it’s critical to hand something down, to build generational wealth.

“As a Black business owner who happens to be in the business of fine art, I’m taking advantage of this blank canvas by embracing adaptation.”

Adjusting to the now normal

Things have changed. I don’t believe there’s going to be any “going back to normal.” I believe this is the “now” normal — not new, but now — because it keeps changing.

Black people know how to adjust. Our lives have always depended on that. As a Black business owner who happens to be in the business of fine art, I’m taking advantage of this blank canvas by embracing adaptation.

I’m letting the challenges make me stronger. I’m choosing to let my energy flow to the good that’s on the flipside of the bad. And as my granddaddy used to say, “Where your energy goes, your success follows.”

The reality is I lost a lot — personally and professionally — because of the pandemic. But, like Mr. Wright said, as an artist, I have a different way of dealing with uncertainty.

My way of dealing with the reality of this pandemic is by finding, focusing and furthering every blessing that comes my way.

To learn more about UPS’s commitment to building a more diverse business landscape, click here.

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